The Solberg World Cup in association with DirtFish is in full swing, with players getting their teeth stuck into the treacherous opening round in the mountains above a virtual Monte Carlo.
Challenging rallying superstar Oliver Solberg for glory is just one reason to get involved. With the potential of learning how to pedal a rally car from Oliver in real-life at DirtFish’s playground in Seattle looming for the victor, this DiRT Rally series is simply impossible to resist.
But two men who know more than anybody what it’s like to throw a car around the DirtFish arena are Jack Harrison and Sam Albert – particularly Albert, as that NR4 class Subaru Impreza WRX you’ve driven in the striking DirtFish livery is the very car he rallied in 2018.
Harrison and Albert are instructors at DirtFish and naturally, given the job, are both extremely talented behind the wheel. But they both compete too, and while Albert has pursued the Subaru route, Harrison currently owns a Volvo 240 Turbo and is enjoying getting accustomed to it.
However, COVID-19 has forced plan B to be executed and both are now representing DirtFish in the Solberg World Cup by pitting themselves against the world’s best virtual and real-life rally drivers.
“When it comes to any sort of online racing I’m a bit of a novice when it comes to taking it more seriously,” Harrison admits. “Over the past few months or so I’ve been pushing a little bit harder so I’m hoping [to be] somewhere [in the] upper mid-pack, that’s what I’ll be pushing for.
“Because it is in a game, a lot of the competition tends to push a little bit too hard so sometimes just by being a little bit more careful and not trying to go completely flat out you can actually end up getting a pretty good result just by being a little bit more relaxed in your approach.”
A relaxed approach is an alien concept to Albert, who’s taking his preparation to the next level.
“I’m taking a very different approach than Jack in that I’m way too competitive to just casually play through,” he interjects.
“I’m doing one stage at a time [and] practicing it sort of 10-15 times before going into the actual stage. My little metric is that I try to go get a top 100 global time over every stage before I go in and do it in the actual competition.
“I’m looking at the top 50, that’s where I’d love to end up.”
Even elements like the choice of car reveal Albert’s relentless will to win. While Harrison will please boss Steve Rimmer by driving Ford’s Fiesta R5, Albert has made the switch to Volkswagen’s equivalent after peering at the top global times from across the world.
“I did a little bit of research and I was looking at the top leaderboard times and was seeing VW, VW, VW, VW and thought, ‘Well, apparently that must be the go-to car’ so I made the switch,” he says.
“And to be fair, I had been in the Fiesta leading up to this and had been practicing in the Fiesta, and was like, ‘Let me give it a go in the Polo’ and sure enough I was a good few seconds faster just on the very first run in the VW.
“With the rally, there’s this kind of classic Monte scenario to consider too: what tire do you use?” he adds.
“Because there’s a good mix of stages and the way that Oliver’s broken it up is you do two stages, service; two stages, service; so every service you have the opportunity to change your tires.
“And some of the two stages when they’re coupled together are actually really dry and have good Tarmac so you can go with softs instead of winter tyres, and if you look at some of the top leaderboard times on the time trial where everybody’s doing their practice, some of the guys are using softs even on the proper long stages through [the Col de] Turini.
“Going on softs they’ll just charge on the Tarmac and build up this massive lead and then get onto the snow and go down to a crawl but they’re still putting massive, massive times down. It’ll be interesting to hear from some of the other top guys what their tire choice was between the softs and the winters.”
But while Albert has been busy practicing and is just a few stages into his rally, Harrison has already completed and managed to escape unscathed, despite what he calls “a few bobbles” along the way.
“Overall I’m pretty pleased with how it went,” Harrison says.
“[It] was the first sort of competitive event that I’ve run [with my rig set-up and] it’s almost like going to a new car where you’re just getting used to how the wheel wants to respond and getting used to a different screen.
“So [I] definitely went with a little bit more of a relaxed approach to it, was focusing on a finish and wheel time rather than outright position.
“[I] had a couple of little bobbles sort of about the halfway stage. [On the] first three stages I was pretty calm [but] once I started to find a rhythm I started to push a little more but we had a couple of missed pacenotes where I got really lucky by not getting a puncture or a rollover but tidied things up towards the end of it.”
We’ll be catching up with Harrison and Albert as the Solberg World Cup progresses, as well as monitoring the rest of the action throughout the competition.